07/20/2007, 00.00
INDIA
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The government should decide whether Christian Dalits are entitled to same benefits as other Dalits

by Nirmala Carvalho
Hindu and Sikh Dalits enjoy benefits based on Scheduled Caste status but Christians are excluded. Advocacy group raises the issue before the Supreme Court which calls on the government to state its position. An expert with a commission of the Bishops’ Conference expresses his views.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – India’s Supreme Court asked the central government to spell out its stand on granting Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians for extending reservation benefits. Meanwhile the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) in a report has found grounds for granting Scheduled Castes status to the Dalits who have converted to Christianity.

The Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) filed a petition with the courts arguing that since reservation was available to Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits there was no reason to deprive Dalit Christians of the same benefits. But the court hearing the petition said that it “was for the Government to take a decision. The caste system has to be examined in detail and data have to be collected.”

The court itself asked whether Christians also practiced the caste system and that Dalits face social discrimination requiring reservation.

Lawyer Ram Jethmalani, appearing for the All-India United Christians Movement for Equal Rights, said that in 1996 the central government tabled an amendment to the law in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Union parliament) to extend benefits to Christian Dalits.

“The government of today, which was in power in 1996, has to be morally committed to the issue,” he said.

Fr Cosmon Arokiaraj, executive secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told AsiaNews that he was “not happy with the court’s proceeding because once again the government is asking whether the Church also practise caste system.” In reality the issue is whether changing religion changes Dalits’ socio-economic status.

“The Catholic Bishops of India in 1978, 1988 and 1998 during the plenary meetings made it clear that the caste system and discriminatory practices do exist within the church,” he explained. This “is a matter of shame and disgrace to all of us. It is a cause of sorrow and an expression of our inability to live our Christian faith adequately.”

However, “Christian Dalits face a double discrimination [. . .]. The Dalit Christian continues to be treated as an untouchable” but also suffers for being Christian since other Dalits can benefit from reservation. As a result of affirmative action programmes these Dalits can be empowered and improve their economic status.

The NCRLM noted that paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 originally restricted the Scheduled Caste status to the Hindus but was later opened to Sikhs and Buddhists. Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parses and others were however excluded.

For this reason, Father Arokiaraj wants the Scheduled Caste status extended to all Dalits, irrespective of their faith as was the case for Scheduled Tribes. In his view Christians born in scheduled castes should exercise the same rights as other citizens.

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